The Smoke and Mirrors of the Congressional Budget Process

If both sides insist on making political points rather than focusing on solutions we aren't going to be in any better situation a year from now.

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Ryan Alexander is the president of Taxpayers for Common Sense.

This week budget committees in both the House of Representatives and the Senate will be considering budget proposals for Fiscal Year 2014. Even though we haven't seen the president's budget request for FY2014 and Washington hasn't even settled on spending levels for FY2013 (the six month stopgap spending expires at the end of this month). So just what do the budget committees in the House and the Senate hope to achieve and what purpose will the documents the committees release actually serve?

When Republican Rep. Paul Ryan and Democratic Sen. Patty Murray–the respective House and Senate Budget Committee chairs—offer their proposals, they are in many ways laying out priorities—very different ones, in all likelihood—by the numbers attached.  The budget proposals allow changes to both revenue and spending policies to be included, with caps in broad budget function areas, but in this initial stage they are not prescriptive or even completely enforceable. There are certainly merits to each chamber of Congress providing these broad visions—voters deserve to understand the priorities and policy proposals at a philosophical level—but for all their broad brush strokes, congressional budget proposals lack sufficient detail to really test the workability of the ideas they frame. That, and there is no requirement that budget proposals be politically possible.

[See a collection of political cartoons on the budget and deficit.]

In general, after House and Senate budget hearings, each chamber passes a budget resolution, and then they hammer out a joint (concurrent) budget resolution that makes sure both chambers are singing off the same spending sheet of music, which makes putting together the final spending bills easier. Historically the base proposal for these resolutions is the president's budget request which has more detail as to what undergirds the overall request, such as programmatic funding levels for discretionary spending, and possibly proposed changes to tax policy and entitlement programs. This year, since we don't anticipate seeing the president's budget until April, the House and Senate budget hearings amount to a partisan budget theater that is very unlikely to yield a joint resolution.

Since the economy, budget deficits, and debt are front and center on everyone's minds, the scripts will include a lot of assertions about what will lead to growth. This is because despite all the disagreements between the parties, everyone agrees that the best way out of our current deficit and debt proposal is through the magic of economic growth. The Democrats will argue that now is not the time to cut spending because it will stifle growth and the government should mostly raise revenues and continue deficit spending, albeit at lower levels. The Republicans will argue that government spending is the problem and if we could only get the budgetary house in order the economy will do fine.

When you cut through the smoke and mirrors in the two chambers budgets (which we will be doing in the coming days) there will be nuggets in both proposals that could help dig us out of our deficit hole and encourage growth. But if both sides insist on making political points rather than focusing on solutions—how to reign in healthcare prices, responsibly make entitlement programs sustainable, fundamental tax reform—we aren't going to be in any better situation a year from now.

  • Read Mark Adams: Raising the Minimum Wage Hurts the Poor
  • Read David Brodwin: What is a Sustainable Tax Policy?
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